Last September, Sonny Dykes sat to watch the NFL’s season-opening game between the Chiefs and Patriots. Dykes, recently the head coach at Cal and then an offensive analyst at TCU, has coached college football since he was a graduate assistant at Kentucky in 1997. He noticed something about the pro game he was watching.
“Watching that game, I remember thinking, ‘This looks like a college football game,’” Dykes tells SB Nation. “They were both playing kind of college offenses, were really diverse in what they were doing, were using a lot of misdirection, were using some quarterback run, both teams. I thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of fun to watch.’”
The Chiefs used a series of misdirection and option plays that have long been common in the college game. They conned New England’s defense all night and scored 42 points in a surprising win. The Chiefs were near the tip of a spear that now includes pretty much the whole league, including the team they beat that night and the Eagles team the Patriots will play in Super Bowl 52.
“Ten years ago or maybe eight years ago, even, everybody in the NFL ran the same offense,” Dykes, now SMU’s head coach, says. “It was all kind of an I-formation, under center, you know; everybody ran the same stuff. All of a sudden, you started seeing a little bit of the college game proliferate a little bit in the NFL.”
The Patriots have borrowed a lot from the college spread.
Part of the Patriots’ genius is that they are football chameleons. On one drive, they’ll line up with five receivers and move with tempo. On another, they’ll bring tight end Rob Gronkowski to the end of the offensive line, call out a fullback, and mash their way upfield like it’s 2003. One of their favorites this year has been presnap motion to set up a jet sweep, with a receiver running across the formation to take a handoff:
Or catch a swing pass:
Or just be a decoy:
Years earlier, Dykes was an offensive assistant and coordinator at Texas Tech.
“A lot of the jet sweep stuff, we were running that stuff way back in the early 2000s at Texas Tech,” he says. “We saw a junior college run it, so we always called it the junior college sweep. I think the very first time we saw it, I think it was a JC out of Mississippi doing it. So we added some elements of that in our offense, and we had Wes Welker and Danny Amendola, because we thought it suited their skills really good.”
Amendola is still running sweeps for the Patriots more than a decade later, like the one above.
Dykes was later the OC at Arizona, where his players included Gronkowski and Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. Dykes’ style has changed over the years, but he was then primarily a disciple of the air raid, a pass-based offense that emphasized stressing defenses vertically and horizontally with varied routes. His future all-world tight end wasn’t Gronk yet, but Arizona used him like the Patriots do.
“He was on the Gronk starter kit,” Dykes says.
Arizona would vary Gronkowski’s alignment all game, every game. He’d spend some downs as an extra offensive tackle, starting with his hand in the grass and blocking. He’d run routes from the slot. Sometimes, Dykes would put three receivers on one side of the field and Gronkowski all alone on the other.
“What we tried to do is say, ‘Look, let’s figure out a way to get a 260-pound guy on a 170-pound corner, and let’s throw him a slant,” Dykes remembers. “And if the guy presses, let’s throw him a fade.” That was in 2009. This is now:
That spread let Arizona use Gronkowski as a bruiser in the run game one play, a threat down the seam the next, and a one-on-one perimeter nightmare the next.
“When Robby went to the Patriots, he said Josh McDaniels spent a lot of time asking him about, ‘OK, what’d you guys do here, and how’d they use you, and what was this, and what was that?’ and he said they put a lot of the stuff in,” Dykes says. “It was pretty similar to what we did. It’s the stuff the Patriots do well. It’s creating matchups.”
The Eagles are extremely college, too, in a more new-school way.
After they beat the Broncos 51-23 in November, Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr. called Philadelphia a “college offense.” He cited the Eagles’ use of run/pass options, where a quarterback decides after the snap (or sometimes, before it) whether the play is a run or a throw, and who’s getting the ball in either case. RPOs have become a vital part of offenses in college, and they’ve filtered upward to the NFL.
In that Denver game, the Eagles used RPOs to go after two All-Pro defenders on the same play: outside linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Aqib Talib:
The play starts as a standard zone read, where a running back (Jay Ajayi) goes across the eyes of the quarterback (Carson Wentz). The Eagles deliberately leave Miller unblocked, giving Wentz the choice to a) hand off, ideally giving Ajayi a numbers advantage to his left if Miller stays put, or b) pull the ball and outrun Miller to the right edge if Miller crashes to tackle Ajayi.
Miller’s so good he doesn’t give the Eagles an obvious running lane either inside or out, but fortunately the play has a third option built in: Alshon Jeffery faking out Talib and getting open deep for a touchdown.
Sometimes, the Eagles choose to toy with inside-aligned linebackers, not edge players. Watch No. 58 for the Chargers, Nigel Harris, fill a school bus-sized lane to take on Blount earlier this season, only to have Wentz pull the ball and throw it to a slanting Ertz, right where the linebacker had been standing before vacating the premises:
Wentz played in a more pro-style system at North Dakota State, the FCS power where he won four national championships, two as the starter. The Bison aren’t a spread team. They usually keep their quarterbacks under center and use plenty of tight ends and fullbacks. But the spread is so pervasive in college that Wentz couldn’t help at least dabbling then. NDSU didn’t use RPOs when Wentz arrived, but the Bison worked a couple of them into each game plan by the time he was a senior in 2015.
“We didn’t have to run a thousand things for Carson to understand it,” Tim Polasek, his NDSU offensive coordinator and now Iowa’s line coach, says. “For us, we were introducing the RPO stuff to him at NDSU, but most certainly, it’s not like NDSU’s an RPO team. Or we never were. But he got introduced to that stuff and a little bit the mixture of what college offense has become.”
The Eagles have remained comfortable using these plays with Foles at QB, following Wentz’s season-ending ACL tear in December. Foles looks just as comfortable as Wentz did using run action to slide the defense away from where he’s eventually throwing:
Foles learned RPOs in the NFL, not college. That’s how quickly these plays have spread: A guy who left the Pac-12 in 2011 was in the pros before they took off in college. Then they did, and then they filtered up to the NFL in time for a 29-year-old Foles to learn them, come off the bench, and ride them to a Super Bowl.
What Foles did become versed in at Arizona was how to chuck the rock.
“The thing that Nick did remarkably well is he threw a really good deep ball,” Dykes remembers of his old QB. “I think that was the thing that we tried to do, and the more he played, the more we realized this kid’s really special at throwing a deep ball. So we started to give him more play-action shots and max protecting and doing a lot of the things that you see him doing with the Eagles.”
Foles can still throw the hell out of a deep ball:
(That throw works at any level.)
This won’t be the last Super Bowl with lots of “college offense.”
Every team runs some version of the spread now, mixed with other stuff. These two do it better than most, but the playoffs were littered with ideas from campuses: Blake Bortles running the zone read, Cam Newton running a similar “power read” behind a pulling blocker, Le’Veon Bell flexing out as a receiver.
“You’re seeing more tempo, more signals, less teams huddling up, trotting to the line of scrimmage. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the college game, but that’s where football is at,” Polasek, Wentz’s college coordinator, says.
“The Patriots have been doing it for a while, right? Playing with some pace. It seems like there are very, very few teams that huddle or play slow after a first down. They wanna get up and keep pressure on defenses.”
RPOs and misdirection plays designed to hide the ball are perfect for college, where coaches need to scheme up to make up for drastic talent disparities. As long as they don’t go away at that level, they’ll get more popular, not less, in the league.
“One thing that we’ve always tried to do is say, ‘You know, OK. What can these guys do? What are they good at? Let’s figure out a way to let them do what they’re good at,’” Dykes says. “It seems like that’s starting to happen more and more in the NFL.”